A dog raising her hand.

(Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash)

Short answer: a mind map is a tree chart that helps you capture ideas.

The following is a long story.

Mind map tools are increasingly sought after by productivity hackers. Thanks to its low learning curve and effective visualization of abstract ideas, the mind map gradually shows up on various best-selling books’ cover. 

However, to keep it secret and pave the way for over-priced products, some marketers intentionally created confusion. What goes with it is anger from mistreated users, who cried out “mind map is a scam,” “why mind map is useless.” 

Today I am going to debunk all these myths in simple and clear language. If you want to jump in detail on how to create a beautiful mind map, you can check out our hands-on mind map guide here.

What is a mind map

The terms, Mind Map and Mind Mapping were created by Tony Buzan, who was inspired by the ancient Greeks’ memorization techniques. The Greeks made good use of association and imagination to connect new information with an existing memory and thus to stimulate the brain to recall the details accurately. Many great thinkers in history, especially Da Vinci, often used graphs, codes, and links to “doodle” in his notes.

Buzan stressed that a graphical way of thinking is the core of mind mapping. To complete his theory, he further promoted tapering lines, color branches, and much more, aiming to mimic neuron cells. His starting point was good, but he went way also than what mind map is.

Broadly speaking, 👉 mind maps are visual thinking tools, which include various types of charts and diagrams. 

Narrowly speaking, 👉 a mind map is a type of tree chart that puts the title in the center and expands topics both horizontally and vertically.

In just one sentence, 👉 the mind map is just a tree chart.

A mind map is a tree chart.

(XMind: Mind Maps Are Tree Charts)

Why do we use mind maps

To figure out the missing tile quicker

The thoughts in your mind, disorganized and ambiguous, get tangibly displayed by visual elements in mind maps. With the visualized ideas at hand, you can locate breakthrough points much quicker. The human brain always prefers visual and orderly information.

A mind map with some branches empty.

(XMind: Find Missing Tiles From Mind Maps)

To get the big picture view

As the mind map extends in all directions, it contains more information in the same space than an outline does. You can get the big picture of the knowledge map within a glance.

A mind map showing structure of a blog.

(XMind: Big Picture Of A Blog)

To improve memory and reasoning ability

To avoid misunderstanding, it is the process of hand motoring and organizing ideas that force the human brain to consolidate the information. Mere reading of finished mind maps does not help, as that is only passive learning.

You can check out the mechanism of hand-drawing in another blog post, Demystifying War between Hand-drawn Mind Maps and Digital Mind Maps. Also, if you want to learn about actionable study hacks backed by science, you can check out Top 15 Actionable Learning Hacks And The Science Behind Them.

What can we do with mind maps

Any scenarios! So long as the information is messy and in scratches. To name a few, task management, brainstorming, presentation outline, meeting summary, book summary, etc., are all suitable situations.

If all the topics inside a mind map is a pile of information, the diagram might be too clunky to read. One compromise is to keep the first two levels of topics in brief words, and put paragraph of detail information inside lower levels or even in the attachments. 

Back to the use cases, here are a few of them:

Reading notes

Make a mind map while or after you are reading a book. Especially with the book closed, the hand-drawing process helps stick information to your mind. It works the same as longhand note-taking during lectures.

A mind map that summarizes a book.

(XMind: Book Summary of “Free Yourself from Worry”)

Business project plan

With abundant choices of visual elements, you can visualize the whole project level by level inside a mind map. Again, a better overview.

A mind map for business plan.

(XMind: Business Plan)

Time management

When the scope and quantity of the tasks are involved, you can use the GTD task quadrants to arrange them. Put jobs in four quadrants according to importance and urgency. Then you can quickly prioritize the urgent and essential tasks.

A four quadrant chart with tasks inside.

(XMind: To-Dos In Four Quadrants)

Problem-solving

Fishbone is an excellent choice for causes-and-effect analysis. Matrix is ultimate in sorting clues in more than two dimensions. You can get further details on how to use matrix and fishbone here.

A fishbone chart showing 5 why analysis.

(XMind: 5 Why Analysis)

Improve meeting efficiency

A mind map with meeting attendees, agenda and action points information.

(XMind: Meeting Notes)

Most of the meetings are just lengthy and inefficient. Meeting while editing mind map anchors participants’ focus. It also saves time afterward, as you do not have to make time for meeting notes.

What mind maps cannot do

Above are what mind maps typically can help with, but it cannot do everything.

cross mark Stimulate the left brain and right brain to work together

The biggest myth and also the most annoying one, which keeps many users yelling at the idea of mind mapping. Unfortunately, even the left brain/right brain theory is proved to be a myth by a 2013 study. Our brains do not favor one side over the other in any tasks. Without stimulation, they work together. So creating mind maps does not improve the stimulus but not harm.

Okay, above, it’s our definition and examples for using mind maps. What do you think is the definition of the mind map? How do you typically use a mind map? Please leave your comment below.